WASHINGTON, D.C. — The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has escalated its response to the polio-like illness that’s struck children in 29 states, increasing the number of disease detectives in its Atlanta headquarters from two to 16, according to a CDC official close to the investigation.
The job of the detectives — formally known as Epidemic Intelligence Service officers — is to collect data on acute flaccid myelitis, known as AFM, and try to identify the cause of the outbreak. Currently, the cause is unknown, and there’s no treatment and no vaccine.
AFM is a rare illness that affects the nervous system, especially the gray matter in the spinal cord, and causes muscle weakness and sudden onset of paralysis. There’s a spectrum of how children can be affected: Some regain the use of their paralyzed limbs, while others are paralyzed from the neck down and can breathe only with the help of a ventilator.
The official said there was an “urgency” to the situation. “It was clear in October that we needed more staff to do the critical response,” the official said. “We’re pulling together the extra people, the extra minds, the extra resources, the extra activities.”
In a CNN story last month, parents of children with AFM and some of the CDC’s own medical advisers criticized the agency for being slow to respond to the outbreak.
Jeremy Wilcox, whose 4-year-old son was diagnosed with AFM in September, organized a meeting last week between parents and a top CDC official. He said he welcomed the stepped-up response. “This is very encouraging to hear the CDC has escalated their response, drastically increasing the resources to responding to AFM,” he said. “This is a drastic difference.”
Overall, the number of CDC staffers working full-time on the disease has more than doubled from 21 to 44 since the middle of October, according to the official.
This year, there have been 106 confirmed cases of acute flaccid myelitis and 167 possible cases, according to the CDC. Since 2014, there have been 430 confirmed cases of the rare disease. Ninety percent of them have been in children.
The new levels of staffing are part of an “escalation” on AFM not seen in previous years, the official said.
CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield announced Monday that the agency had created the Acute Flaccid Myelitis Task Force to aid in the investigation. The task force will bring together experts from various fields in medicine and public health to try to find the cause of AFM and improve treatment.
The official said it would take time to answer some of the most crucial questions about AFM. Though experts think it’s caused by a common type of virus, it’s not clear why most people who get the virus recover easily while others become paralyzed.
“I would hate to promise parents that it’s going to be solved in a short time, because this is not something easy, or we would have solved it,” the official said.